Category Archives: University education

Education in the Classics: An All-singing, All-dancing Discussion of Student Debt and Higher Learning

“And I’m Javert! Do not forget my name. Do not forget me, 24601.”

Inspector Javert introducing himself in the Prologue to the musical version of Les Miserables

Much like the brooding Inspector in Victor Hugo’s classic story, Andrew Norton – Higher Education Program Director at public policy think tank the Grattan Institute – is deeply concerned about people paying their debt to society. Where Javert’s focus is the reform of paroled prisoners however, and in particular the story’s central protagonist Jean Valjean – the prisoner 24601 of the opening line above – Norton’s issue in the 21st century is the financial debt of University graduates.

The ballooning level of ‘bad debt’ in the Australian student loan system – and particularly the projected increase in this figure if the Federal government’s plans for ‘de-regulated University funding’ finally pass the Senate – has Norton thoroughly exercised. The key problem, he would have us believe, is the earnings threshold to repayments. Under the Australian student loan system, debtors don’t have to start paying back their loans until after they graduate and are earning more than $54,000 – not exactly a high bar, given the average national wage, according to 2014 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, is $58,000. Norton though would have it that this threshold is actually too high – with those darned freeloading students apparently racking up education debts like nobody’s business, safe in the knowledge that they’ll never beat the criterion to trigger their loan repayments. To give the man his own voice on this point:

“If we keep the current [repayment] threshold, increasing numbers of students will not repay their debt and the taxpayers will have to pay the cost of their education. It ends up being a very generous scheme for people who have gone to university compared to other people from the social security system”

Andrew Norton quoted by Higher Education Editor Julie Hare in The Australian.

Well, obviously I for one am completely behind Mr Norton on this one, and stand shocked that…wait…what’s that you say? Actually, now that you mention it, yes, I do seem to recall that Norton is also on record in his 2012 report ‘Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education’ as advocating increased University fees on the basis that graduates enjoy a substantial advantage in earnings over their non-matriculating counterparts.

Now, to be fair, if you read between the lines, what Norton seems to actually be saying – with admirable consistency – is that he believes in market deregulation, and that the Government should minimize its involvement in higher education funding. Unfortunately, if you read what is actually ON the lines, his attempts to stitch economic statistics into two opposing arguments do leave him looking a bit exposed to accusations of doublespeak.

Even if your underlying philosophy is consistent, it pays to consider the compatibility of the messages you put out. Reproduced from Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoon, first published 1995.

Even if your underlying philosophy is consistent, it pays to consider the compatibility of the messages you put out. Reproduced from Scott Adams’ Dilbert cartoon, first published 1995.

But back to those freeloading students and their persistent attempts to get out of paying their dues. Not satisfied with pushing down the repayment threshold, Norton would also like to see student debt passed on to next of kin in the event of a debtor’s premature (by which he means “while the little scallywag still owes us for their education”) death.

This would seem a bit over the top in an unpleasant workhouse overseer springing from the pen of Dickens. To hear it coming from a seriously regarded 21st century social policy advocate is, to my mind, stunning.

Indeed, returning to the musical reflection on debt and forgiveness with which I started this essay, Norton’s suggestion might not look out of place in an updated Les Mis. Picture it – as the plaintive refrains of Fantine’s show-stopping death fade and the audience mop their tears, Javert and Valjean begin their baritone confrontation, mano-a-mano, hope against despair, redemption juxtaposed against punishment. After he sneers that “Monsieur le Mayor” – the former convict 24601 – can never change his innate criminality, the French policeman could throw in that the good mayor’s new adopted daughter Cosette owes the state 1000 Francs for the night courses in accountancy her mother had been taking to work her way out of the life of prostitution she’d been forced into by an uncaring society.

Okay, I may be paraphrasing Norton slightly on that one, but I think it basically works.

“Look Javert – I think the study debt thing is way out of line. Isn’t it enough that our society’s uncaring Economic Rationalist policies pushed her into prostitution and a pitiful early death?”
Still image taken from Tom Hooper’s 2012 cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables.

What the headline-catching issue of fees and loans is all about though is how we pay for our University system, and ultimately – although this point seems to be sadly neglected on the intellectual battlefield of the moment – what purpose Universities serve in our society. The fundamental policy dilemma Norton and others are seeking to address is that our public Universities – which are both a substantial industry bringing in foreign exchange to Australia and, we are told, the engines of our own future national economic prosperity – are significantly under funded, and the current political landscape is very much against changing that any time soon.

According to the national peak industry body Universities Australia, our wide and sunburned land ranks a not-so-proud 30th out of the 31 OECD countries for public investment in higher education as a percentage of GDP. Taking that figure as their inspiration, Universities Australia – led by the ‘Group of 8’ coalition of Australia’s top Tertiary institutions – has spent the past couple of years demanding fee deregulation as a way of raising more funding to support their activities.

The response to this from Education Minister Christopher Pyne was to say “Absolutely, let’s bring on the Free Market.”

Yes, said Mr Pyne, university fees should absolutely be de-regulated, with institutions free to charge what they considered appropriate for the education they provided. Fees could go up, or they could go down. Entirely up to the Universities.

Oh, and by the way, we’re also going to cut 20% from the Government’s bulk funding for student places.

This is pretty much a policy equivalent of James Wan’s cult classic 2004 horror movie Saw: Yes, Vice Chancellor, you can get your institution out of the funding bind I have trapped you in, but only if you use the sharpened blade of deregulated fees we’ll leave in the room with you to carve an extra pound of flesh from your students.

As you might have gathered, I’m not a fan of user-pays in higher education. I can accept though that there is a need for debate, and ultimately a new social contract around how our society can support the education system we need.

Loans, unfortunately, skew this debate by softening the intellectual battle ground. “Sure your education will cost you,” says the Government “But we’ll loan you the money, so even the most under-privileged can afford it.”

The essential problem with this premise that tends to get skipped over is that in the Australian education system, most matriculating students still come straight to University from high school. In essence we’re talking about a demographic group which is barely, if at all, old enough to legally consume alcohol. And Pyne expects them to do a cost-benefit analysis and long term financial modeling on the value proposition of a loan? Was he ever 18?

Yes, of course it would be eminently wise for any young (or even middle-aged) scholar contemplating taking on education debt to carefully consider the benefits they will accrue from that education, and whether they are worth the opportunity cost of the discounted future income – sacrificing three, or four, or five years of wages now (and taking on that debt) for the promise of higher wages and greater career opportunity in the future.

It would also – in my admittedly out-of-touch estimations – be smart for my 17 year old daughter to finish her Psychology homework before she turns on Facebook and starts watching YouTube clips of amusing animals. Curiously, she seems resistant to the logic of this position. And yet Norton, Pyne, and others like them would have us believe she is ready to accept the reality of taking on $100,000 of debt before she’s even encountered the reality of significant work and managing a household budget.

Sure, there are some incredibly clued up young people out there with vision and drive who have their lives together and their futures mapped out, and see a carefully targeted education loan as a key step toward realizing their strategic career plan. But if you’re engaging your joined-up-policy-thinking and pushing this down to the government’s target of 40% participation in higher education, you’re crossing deep into a cohort whose idea of financial planning is likely to be more along the lines of “Daddy, can I borrow $400 to get a tattoo of Grumpy Cat? It would be so funny and I’d never get tired of it.”

Basically, I’m not convinced young adults sit down and complete a full cost-benefit analysis before lining up tequila shots in Bali or hooking up on schoolies week.

Or taking on a student loan.

The money changes hands above your head and out of your sight, with the actual amounts vastly out of proportion to the everyday experience of most applicants. For the prospective student, ticking a box to take on a debt of more money than they’ve earned, handled, or even seen in their entire life is typically so abstracted from everyday reality as to be essentially meaningless. More damagingly too, the temporal distance of the loans – exciting education today for money in the distant future – like all offers of seductive credit – is all about lowering your mental barriers to the true cost of what you’re buying.

In effect, student loans are the gateway drug to excessive charges and a privatized education system.

Indeed, I’m falling into another little trap of Pyne’s rhetoric myself here – I’ve spent this entire essay so far countering the mechanics of the proposed loan system, when my fundamental problem with student debt (as you may have gathered if you’ve gotten this far) is a philosophical one. Student loans and education debt undermine the effectiveness of education as a tool of social mobility – the opposite of what we need to do to work against the natural tendency of wealth disparity to increase.

As explained by economist Thomas Piketty in his 2013 book ‘Capital in the Twenty-first century’ – it is the natural order of the capitalist economic system for wealth inequality to grow. Capital makes money. If you have money, it can be made to work for you and bring in more money. That is the simple brilliance of the system – you do not need breeding, or training, or other exclusionary characteristics – all you need is money. But the flip side of that, as unionists and youthful agitators have been protesting since the day Adam Smith’s first treatise rolled off the printing press, is that those who do not have access to capital are excluded – the rich will get richer, the poor will not. A rising tide may float all boats, as they say, but if you’re not one of the lucky few to own a yacht, things get increasingly uncomfortable as the water rises.

It’s hard to swim against the flow of capital, and education stands almost alone as a non-disruptive engine for social mobility to counter that trend – providing a means for motivated and gifted individuals to access careers, networks, and opportunities that allow them to change their place in the social and economic order.

In this context, the expectation of debt becomes highly regressive – substantially reducing the redistributive potential of education. Loans simply do not work as a way of equalising social access to the benefits of education. A student who can pay (or whose family will pay) fees up-front leaves the education system with no debt – affording them an immediate advantage in wealth accrual over a student who takes on debt to fund their education, so that there is still a widening gap between rich and poor built into that system.

So, on to act three of our education song-and-dance. If I’m so dead set against the concept of increased student fees and loans, how are we supposed to fix the looming funding hole in our education system? I suspect the keen eyed among you may already have identified an alternative solution framed by the discussion up to this point – as a society, we could simply choose to spend MORE on higher education.

There is no sense in which the Australian taxpayer is being milked by the national University system. 30th place in terms of relative funding, let’s remember, out of the 31 nations in the OECD – and “well at least we aren’t last” is hardly a point of national pride to cling to. It’s like turning up at your child’s school swim carnival and watching them touch the wall just ahead of the asthmatic foreign exchange student who had never been in a body of water deeper than their knees until they arrived in the country this term. Yes, it could still be worse, but you’re not exactly going to raise the achievement around the water cooler at work the next day bursting with parental pride.

As Steven Parker – Vice Chancellor of the University of Canberra – observes, we don’t even need to be world leaders in the progressive funding stakes here. If, instead of manufacturing a funding crisis by imposing an arbitrary 20% cut on an already strained system, we instead upped our funding input to the OECD average, all projected funding issues for Universities in this country go away, and the strength of the sector would be assured for a generation. Parker, sadly, is pretty much a lone voice against de-regulation among Australian Vice Chancellors, speaking out stridently and consistently against the Pyne proposal.

His willingness to buck the consensus of his peers and put his counter-arguments on record though does give me hope for the continued intellectual relevance of the University sector. If there was a Council of Elrond to decide who should carry the Ring of Power to Canberra and toss it in the Captain Cook Water Spout to end the hold of Economic Rationalism over higher education in this country (if only it were that easy!), Parker would have my vote.

All well and good then, I hear you say, but where does the money come from to pay for such largesse? Well, if Norton was anywhere close to correct in his ‘Graduate Winners’ report and there is actually a link between University education and career financial success, then a mechanism that could cover the cost of the higher education system already exists. The positive news for the Government on this score gets even better too – because this funding mechanism operates on a sliding scale finely tuned to the success of an individual – so those who benefit most from their education will pay the most. Hoorah – the Liberal ideal! Christopher Pyne must be dancing in his office to hear such news.

So what is this magical financial saviour? It’s called income tax.

If Norton is right and graduates obtain an earnings advantage from their degree – money they would not otherwise have made without that degree – then it follows absolutely and immediately from this that they will also pay more tax – tax they would not otherwise have paid – over the course of their working life.

Let’s just assume for a second that the Grattan institute calculations are valid and that the average University graduate enjoys something like a lifetime $600,000 earnings advantage over their compatriots without degrees – with Norton’s dodgy extension from here being that 90% ($540,000) of this is attributable to the University education our graduate received. As I’ve discussed before, the assumptions behind these numbers actually make them fairly unreliable – but as they’re Norton’s figures I think it’s intellectually reasonable to turn them back on him here. Okay – so lets assume this $540,000 is at the top marginal tax rate of 47% – and throw in the 2% medicare levy as well. That would come out as the government collecting up to $265,000 in extra tax from that individual that they wouldn’t otherwise have received. By Norton’s logic, the government could eliminate fees, bring back student grants, and STILL come out ahead of the game.

And hey, if you want to look at the large scale implications of this kind of policy, having fully state funded University education doesn’t exactly seem to have crippled the German economy.

So, as we come to the finale of our theatrical review and the music rises to its triumphant crescendo, how do you in the audience want things to finish up for our student protagonist? Would you have them meekly accept Javert’s label as loan account number 24601 and get back to work? Or are you rooting for them to stand up, bare their chest, and declaim to the world:

“Who am I? Who am I? I am Jean Valjean!”

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Rosetta Stones and Rugged Men

The Rosetta Stone - prize exhibit of the British Museum...and extended scientific metaphor.

The Rosetta Stone – prize exhibit of the British Museum…and extended scientific metaphor.

There are all kinds of arguments to be made about the imperial history that saw Britain amass the huge treasure trove housed in the British Museum, and whether ‘finders keepers’ should actually be a valid point of international law. Unarguably though, this collection is one of the most glorious and inspiring concentrations of culturally significant historical artifacts in the world. And amongst all this splendour, the most visited antiquity is not some golden treasure or grand architectural marvel – but a simple carved slab of rock – the Rosetta Stone.

This artifact has been displayed behind protective glass since 2000, but when I first visited the museum in the simpler (or perhaps more naive) days of the previous century, the stone was tantalisingly exposed to the world, lying in a steel cradle where I could have reached out to gently touch its ancient surface, had I been so inclined.

The stone itself is a slab of dark, fairly fine-grained granodiorite, a broken fragment of a previously larger tablet inscribed with a decree issued by Ptolemy V in 196 BC, commemorating his ascension to the Egyptian throne. Neither the elegant solidity of the stone though, nor the content of the inscription, explain why this piece is so inspirational and universally recognised.

Instead, the Rosetta Stone has entered our lexicon as the ultimate cypher – the key to breaking the deepest of codes – reviving a dead language.

The Ancient Egyptians were a famously literate society. We’re not talking the mass literacy of the modern world of course, with only around 1% of the population – at a generous estimate – able to read and write. This is a rate put to shame by even modern laggard states like Burkina Faso, where literacy extends to 21.8% of the population – the lowest rate in the world by current UN reckoning. Egypt’s 1% though stand out through the mists of history for having produced, among other milestones in the development of civilization, one of the earliest true traditions of narrative literature, recorded in an array of letters, poems, and commemorative autobiographical texts celebrating the careers of prominent officials. Beyond these temple walls and epic monumental writings of storied fame though, the Egyptians also left a record of the day-to-day function of their highly ordered society – of harvests and recipes, contracts and legal disputes – on papyri and tablets that have withstood the ravages of time in the hot dry climate of the Nile valley and its surrounding deserts to preserve a historical record of the ancient world unique in its depth and completeness.

The important element for our story though is that when first re-discovered by the explorers and enquirers of an enlightened Europe intent on understanding and controlling (and returning to our opening discussion of the British Museum, often exporting) the mysteries of the world, this treasured store of information was locked away – hidden, denied to the hopeful scholars – behind the apparently impenetrable barrier of lost language – with understanding of both hieroglyphic (the famed pictographic writing of Pharonic tombs and Hollywood blockbusters) and the simpler written version of Ancient Egyptian erased by the shifting sands of time.

Where the Rosetta Stone enters the picture is that it’s message of glory and divine rule is inscribed not once, but three times, in three different languages – those two lost Egyptian scripts and, crucially, the very much alive (at least for upper class educated Europeans of the 19th century who had been to the right schools) ancient Greek – for which we can thank the fact that the Ptolemaic Dynasty was actually founded by Macedonian general Ptolemy Soter, who installed himself as ruler of Egypt in the carve-up of Alexander the Great’s empire in 323BC. Even in its broken state (none of the three versions of the inscription is complete), this combination provided a starter kit for the eventual translation of the previously lost Egyptian languages. The Rosetta Stone, in essence, provided a single example of spectacular clarity that made sense of a much larger array of other information, unlocking that vast catalogue of previously indecipherable records.

The concept of a cypher along these lines is not uncommon in observational science. We often look to sites and specimens where relationships or natural processes seem expressed with unusual clarity or simplicity in order to illustrate our ideas or to use as the basis of discussion.

This is certainly not a new idea when it comes to theories regarding the nature of geological systems – indeed, it’s as old as the science of Geology itself. James Hutton – the 18th century Scottish polymath who surely boasts a claim as strong as any to be the intellectual father of this field – didn’t try to explain his ideas on the dynamics of the world by picking up the nearest pebble. On the contrary – he was renowned for taking friends and dignitaries on field trips to view exceptional exposures he had located that seemed to present particularly clear examples of the phenomena he was discussing. His Rosetta Stones.

Even today, we look to such unusual examples where the complexity and vagaries of natural history seem momentarily brushed aside to reveal unambiguous evidence of a physical process in action.

The corollary to the importance of such examples though is the critical question – where should we look for our Rosetta Stones? To give away the ending here, the smart money is on “anywhere and everywhere”…but this measured insight often proves surprisingly difficult to impart. Rather, there is a persistent belief among many in the profession that the importance of an outcrop is (or at least, with a plaintive appeal to cosmic justice, should be) in inverse proportion to the ease with which it can be accessed.

Release a group of Geology students into the wild on a mapping exercise – especially, it should be said, young male students, and their first reaction usually isn’t to sit down and plan an efficient programme of work. It’s to decamp to the highest, most rugged, least accessible area of the field.

At the heart of this challenge lies some pretty fundamental human psychology. We love stories – and whatever we might tell ourselves, we spend much of our lives with an ear half tuned to an internal narrative of how our actions stack up. “I had to ford the river in spate, vanquish the dragon, then climb to the highest room in the tallest tower” is simply more appealing than “well, I just poked about under the bush and there it was.”

Which leads me to the rugged man maxim – an empirical law derived from observation of generations of young Earth Science students in action. In its purest form, this represents a belief that the most important outcrop in a district – the most informative, the most significant to unravelling the ambiguous twists and turns of geological history – will be found at its pole of inaccessibility: the hardest point to reach.

Besides giving rise to a host of sore and sun-burnt students though, does the Rugged Man Maxim stack up when it comes to results? All those trips I took as field trip leader to Andalucian Accident and Emergency departments trying to help testosterone-fuelled young men explain in broken Spanish just where the thorns were lodged – were they actually associated with greater understanding on the part of the bandaged apprentice geologists, and higher marks in their mapping projects?

I think we all already know the answer to that question.

Certainly, physically and logistically challenging fieldwork can produce results of great significance and enrich our understanding of fundamental questions. But the importance of a locality does not derive from its accessibility or spectacular grandeur – it is incidental to it.

The Burgess Shale was discovered in 1909 by paleontologist Charles Dolittle Walcott in a remote mountain pass, high in the Canadian Rockies. The exquisitely preserved 505 million year old fossils extracted from this spectacular wilderness setting – as far from the Madding Crowd as you could hope to find yourself – provided a new window on life in the ancient Cambrian oceans – a Rosetta Stone that changed and enhanced our understanding of a host of other, less complete and more poorly preserved fossil fauna.

At the other end of the scale, you can get to the La Brea Tar Pits in urban Los Angeles on the Metro Rail – but that doesn’t stop the Pleistocene fossil fauna preserved in the tar being any less inspiring and scientifically significant in its own way, as the best known and most exquisitely preserved record of the extinct mammalian megafauna of North America.

Neither methodical and thorough investigation nor boundless investment are guarantees of significant discovery, and equally, sometimes it really is simply enough to be in the right place at the right time – as in 1928 when William P. “Punch” Jones and his father were playing horseshoes in Peterstown, West Virginia, and happened to turn up a 34.48 carat alluvial diamond, the largest such gem found in the United States to date.

Fundamentally, there is no justice in the layout of the world and its geological treasures. The key exposure that will lay clear the mysteries of a study area and lead to a bankable discovery may well sit under a poisonous thorn bush atop the windswept peak of the highest mountain in the district. But it’s just as likely to be right beside the trail where you stopped the 4WD for the night in the shade of a beautiful old acacia tree, so don’t discount your good fortune on those occasions when you do get lucky.

The Educational Promise of Online Learning – Rainbow Connection or DNS error: File not found?

The embrace of remote delivery and engagement is often held to offer a revolutionary opportunity in higher education. MOOC learning may be the latest manifestation of this mantra, but the vision is not a new one, with the winds of pedagogical change heralded since the era of chat rooms and dial up modems – management guru Peter Drucker famously writing in 1997 that:

“[T]hirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.”

Well, “So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it…” – so said (or more accurately, sang) Kermit the Frog in 1979’s ‘The Muppet Movie’ – and as students of the great green sage will be well aware, the next line is “I know they’re wrong, wait and see.”

So is online learning really the way of the future? A paradigm shift in the delivery of teaching that will allow instruction and educational inclusion of the world’s masses with greater efficiency and ever decreasing cost? Or is the digital education revolution, like Kermit’s rainbow, a mere illusion – a destination that will ever recede from us as we seek to approach it?

My own engagement with online educational tools stretches back to the early years of the 21st century, soon after I arrived on the scene as a newly minted, enthusiastic lecturer determined to change the world and enrich the intellectual life of generations of engaged and grateful young students. To paraphrase US academic Matt Cartmill, it turns out this was a bit like becoming an Archbishop to meet girls – but that’s another story.

In those days, whiteboards, chalkboards, and slide and overhead projectors (anyone under the age of 30, go ask your parents about that one) were the tools of the trade, but the internet was already rearing its shiny and alluring head in education circles, and tech-savvy early adopters were exploring its potential in all manner of fields.

As I immersed myself in my first year of classes, I soon found keen young students asking – with all the bright eyed intensity of true believers fresh from Scientology boot camp – whether notes would be made available online. Clearly, the thinking ran, if only they could read the notes on the internet, everything would be alright and knowledge and understanding would pass directly into their cerebral cortices and become part of their being.

Young, innovative, and eager to please as I was, I took up the challenge and worked to create learning materials to support my courses, doubling my workload to lay out packages of notes, study guides, and additional readings.

Students expressed their gratitude, colleagues slapped me on the back, line managers signed off on my probationary progress reports and labeled me an innovator. And then along came integrated online learning platforms (or Virtual Learning Environments – VLE – as they’ve since become) and suddenly my eyes were opened.

The ability to monitor student use at an individual level in these integrated platforms meant I could see exactly who was accessing the material, and when. What this brought home to me was that for all their professed desire for more support (and the time invested by me as tutor in preparing material), depressingly few students actually used the support opportunities when they were made available to them.

With the benefit of hindsight, this is no different in its fundamentals to classmates from my own University days who would invest themselves in compiling complete lecture notes – begging, borrowing, and in a few (with the distance of years, rather amusing) cases, stealing to cover the gaps in their trusty ring binders resulting from illness, employment commitments, or benders in the local beer garden – and then never look at them again. This in itself though is probably a truth we would do well to put at the forefront of any discussion of education – the techniques may change, but the fundamental nature of students does not.

Initially I was a bit depressed by this realization. All that work. All my good intentions. I’d built my learning outpost – General Store, Saloon, hitching posts and all – and all I had to show for it was a few tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street.

What I had done in crafting a VLE to my own inner vision clearly wasn’t working for my students, and armed with this realization, I went back to the beginning and re-designed my online support package around the principle of encouraging a more engaged learning model – presenting materials in a range of ways to facilitate and encourage interaction from different perspectives. Yes, more work for me as a teacher, but this time – working to a more defined educational vision – the result was strikingly different. Student use of online resources increased dramatically compared to my initial attempts, the ethic of interactive and independent learning seemed to carry over into contact hours in the classroom, and at the end of the course, yes, student exam marks increased significantly too.

The point in presenting this second act to the story is not to hold myself up as some paragon of virtue (it was, after all, my own launch failure I was addressing here) – it’s that it wasn’t the subject matter that was critical to this change, or the platform. What made the difference was an engaged educator taking the time and effort to make things work.

Ultimately, VLE and online learning are simply new tools for educators to apply to their mission – and even a tool that can in one hand create a masterpiece might in another produce nothing more than a crude caricature. Octogenarian parishioner Cecilia Gimenez became an internet phenomenon a few years ago for her fresco ‘restoration’ in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in Borja, Spain. The artwork retained the same setting as it had before, the same subject – the plaintive Christ gazing up from beneath his crown of thorns – same intention to inspire grace and devotion in the viewer, yet the addition of Gimenez’s brushwork saw Elías García Martínez’s original Ecce Homo (Behold the Man) – by no means a masterpiece, but a passable religious artwork in the Catholic tradition, by all accounts – turned into what BBC Europe correspondent Christian Fraser described as resembling “a crayon sketch of a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic”.

Online learning does provide a powerful pedagogical tool that can change the relationship between educator and student. Using such online approaches though is no more likely in and of itself to improve educational outcomes than waving a paintbrush is to produce a masterwork.

Even magic bullets need someone to fire them in the right direction.

Three monkeys, ten minutes – Scientists and the importance of communication skills

Science and technology have changed almost every aspect of the way we live our lives over the past 100 years, and are at the heart of many major challenges we face today.

Science, however, is nothing more, nor less, than a process by which we seek to understand the forces that shape and control the universe around us, and understanding is not the same as a need (or permission) to act. We can produce fresh water through desalination, or treat waste water (yes, sewage) to the point where it is potable. We can produce genetically modified crops and organisms resistant to disease. Even engineer changes in the system of climate. We know public health would be improved if we banned tobacco. But should we? Do we want to?

How we act on scientific understanding is in essence a social compact between scientists, policy makers, politicians, and the public. At the heart of this is a need that these groups understand one another.

Now, scientists are not so irredeemably bad at the communication game as some stereotypes (such as Scott Adams’ acerbic put-down above) would have us believe. A core part of the scientific process is the need to clearly and persuasively explain ideas to others, and to engage in and foster discussion, testing, and criticism of those ideas. This can take the form of conference and symposium presentations to our peers, tutorial sessions for students, written papers – but however it takes place, an ability to communicate is a key pillar of the scientist’s skill set.

Stephen Hawking is acknowledged as one of the most significant and influential thinkers in late 20th and early 21st century Physics. His mind is capable of soaring on phenomenal flights of mathematical and scientific creativity beyond the realms of thought commonly occupied by many. Were it not for the technological aids that allow him to communicate electronically, however, many of those beautiful theoretical constructions would have remained locked away inside his progressively failing body. A poignant, albeit extreme, variation on George Berkeley’s philosophical construction “If a tree falls in a forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound?”

All successful scientists, certainly, must either become good communicators, or develop symbiotic relationships with colleagues able to support them in that domain. Fundamentally, brilliant ideas are not enough – if you are not able to clearly and persuasively explain your idea, it will go unremarked – Science will not grow and prosper from your contribution.

Where scientists may sometimes fall down in the communication stakes is an over-specialisation. We invest so much in developing an ability to discuss and exchange ideas at a high level with our peers that the communication of ideas to non-specialists may become neglected.

Unfortunately, nowhere outside of macroeconomic modelling equations do ‘the general population’ actually behave as perfect, rational beings. Society is complex, and people hold views for all manner of reasons – personal, cultural, logical, or religious, among others. We do not have to share those views, but we do need to appreciate and respect their reality if we are serious about influencing policy decisions. It’s not enough to expect the general populace to accept a paternalistic “trust me, I’m a scientist” as a reason for following your advice. It’s also not among the most successful of pick-up lines.

In the words of Jesse Shore, National President of the Australian Science Communicators:

“…few people base their decision making on just being presented with good science. The communicator’s message must have meaning, be useful and acknowledge the needs, aspirations and concerns of each intended audience.”

It is in this context that a Scientist failing to represent their work to the general population becomes significant – a weak link in the nexus required for the hard-won scientific understanding of natural systems to play a significant role in the development of meaningful policy.

Ceding the communications role to the existing media system may not always be a helpful substitute either. Conventional reportage is built not around nuance and weighted discussion, but the manufacture and presentation of conflict and controversy – which is doubly harmful for complex issues. If you don’t understand the methods used or the calculations undertaken to reach a scientific conclusion, taking sides in the debate – or basing a serious policy decision on it – would be like listening to a Frenchman and a German arguing in a third language you yourself have no understanding of (those dashed Europeans can be so clever that way), and concluding “I agree with the French guy because his accent sounds sexier.”

This is why the scientific community should appreciate – even treasure – those scientists and writers able to genuinely translate our work – to explain complex ideas and arguments to others without diluting their meaning. Simon Singh, Robert Winston, the late Carl Sagan…maybe not Simon Winchester, who has a nice turn of phrase, but to my thinking a tendency to undertake diversions off-topic that detract from the flow of thought (for anyone who may have read any of my previous posts, yes, I know – pot, kettle, black) – for these are our ambassadors – our public face.

This is also why we should welcome and encourage the incorporation of communication skills teaching into science degree programmes. This addition has recently become a core element of the new degree structure at the University of Western Australia where I work – not without some controversy among both staff and prospective students. Personally, I have never needed convincing in regards to the importance of training scientists in this area. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that no-one who has ever marked undergraduate essays from science students could ever query that suggestion.

Beyond my self-serving investment in the idea, however, is a more serious foundation. By training future scientists in the skills and strategies of communication – or at the very least making them aware of the significance of this area – we can work to close this gap and see a better informed discussion of scientific subjects in the broader public sphere.

Increasing the fundamental communications skills of our scientific graduate cohort has additional benefits too. This is about more than just making your ideas sound impressive. Learning to structure an essay, or mastering the rhetoric of a compelling argument can in themselves make our students better scientists – providing a mental template for the robust logical interpretation of ideas. You can collect all the data you want, allow your thoughts so roam as wide and soar as high as the limits of infinity, but like an inversion of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, it is the act of precisely describing your findings clearly to others that ultimately crystallizes them – pinning them to the page and making them real.

So my fellow scientists, let us value and applaud the communicators in our midst and work together towards a future of better informed, relevant debate of scientific ideas within the social landscape. To take the discussion full-circle then – we might not be able to touch Shakespeare, but at the very least, let’s all try to up our Monkey Quotient a few notches.

But what’s it for? An alternative to the monetarist valuation of University education

When an academic starts talking about the University system, you know straight away that there is a risk of the discussion becoming so self referential a reader would need an endoscope to appreciate the arguments. Having last week laid out a critique of the statistical underpinning of the recent Grattan Institute report on University funding (More Pennies for your thoughts – 28/09/12), however, I find myself compelled to do just that, in the spirit of addressing the essayist’s dilemma of “well its all very well to criticise, but what’s your alternative?”

So if I would pull down the monetarist temple that Andrew Norton, higher education programme director at the Grattan Institute, wants to build on the foundations of our Universities, what would I have us put in its place, and why?

Norton argues that fee increases would not impact on the decisions of individuals to attend University because:

“…a financially-based motivation cannot explain why so many students with good ATARs [scores in Australia’s University entrance examinations] choose humanities and performing arts, which have relatively poor employment and income outcomes.”

I suspect the inference drawn here is correct – University students in Australia, including the more intellectually gifted among them, often choose courses on the basis of personal interest or intellectual curiosity. Personally I hope this long continues…but I don’t think Norton sees things the same way. Rather, he seems to see this as an anathema – clever students with the potential to make money for themselves choosing to do something without an obvious net cash benefit? Like a Vulcan anthropologist on Star Trek, unable to understand this strange propensity of humans to undertake study that is not in some way to their immediate and personal financial advantage, Norton effectively proposes an experiment whereby we massively increase the economic cost on the individual, and then see how many people still behave ‘inefficiently’ in choosing to study on the basis of silly little things like social conscience or a desire to broaden themselves intellectually.

I have a number of intelligent and talented friends who have chosen to attend University later in life for reasons other than economic enrichment. One, after a youth spent traveling and teaching in Asia, chose to study for an education degree so he could apply his acquired wisdom to the inspiration and development of Australian school students. Another, a recent arrival in this country herself, is completing a degree in social work because she wants to help the disadvantaged and disenfranchised in our society. Would we really be better off as a nation if these people were to take courses in business management instead? Or give up their dreams of study to work waiting tables in a cafe?

Entangled with this question of why we undertake University education is the issue of exactly what the benefit is that we take from the experience. Norton argues that the value derived from a University degree arises from the combination of training – extra capacities graduates gain at university that they could not otherwise obtain – and signaling – in the form of a credential that distinguishes them in the labour market.

The concept here of being ‘distinguished’ in the labour market is particularly interesting in the context of drives to increase the uptake of tertiary education in our already relatively educated and well-trained population. It may have been true that a university degree was a significant badge of merit – a ticket, perhaps, to the inner circle of a stratified meritocracy – at the time of Australian Federation, when the 2,652 University students in the country represented around 0.2% of the young adult population. Or even on the eve of World War 2, when 14,000 students accounted for around 1% of the equivalent group. That badge begins to lose its lustre though as the University participation figure nudges 30% in the first decade of the 21st century (on the back of 757,000 students), and the Australian government is targeting 40% degree qualification in the adult workforce by 2015.

If you’re at the bottom end of that 30-40%, its unlikely you’re going to see much of a premium on your employment worth from that particular line in your CV. In the comically evil words of Buddy Pine/Syndrome in the Pixar movie ‘The Incredibles’ – “When everyone’s super – no-one will be”.

So what of training? Does university make people smarter? I would say no – it certainly gives an opportunity to apply intellect, but I doubt a graduate is any more gifted in terms of naked intelligence than they were the day they matriculated. Does it provide skills that will be useful in the workplace? Sure – but wouldn’t working for three to five years do that too? Or job-specific training? Seriously, if your primary interest is a desire to develop work skills and business acumen – and I can’t stress this enough – the best path I could recommend would be to get a job, apply yourself with rigor and passion, and seek guidance and advice from figures in the industry who you respect and admire.

Outside of the handful of specific professional University degrees (we’re talking law, medicine and their ilk, and perhaps technical science fields to some extent), I seriously doubt there are many learning experiences at University that could not be replicated – even bettered – through professional experience and mentoring. Major companies routinely employ top graduates as the core talent of their future workforce – and then what? They don’t say “right graduate boy (or girl), off you go to work”. No, they induct their new hires, retrain them, and teach them how to do a job – sometimes over a course of years.

So what am I saying here – is University a waste of time and money we should be steering kids away from? No – on the contrary, I see university education as a huge and life enhancing benefit to the individual that everyone should aspire to undertake at some point in their lives. With my heart on my sleeve I say that this experience should be freely available to anyone on the basis of their intellectual and emotional readiness to benefit from it – but with an economic realist hat on (albeit one tilted at a deliberately subversive angle), if society cannot afford the luxury of free education, the individual should pay, and should value and appreciate the opportunity their money is buying. So far I suspect Norton is nodding his head in agreement and mumbling “that’s what I said” – but where I think our perspectives really start to diverge is that I am not convinced that the benefits derived from University education are financial, and I think to sell it as such is dishonest and degrades the university experience.

“But…but…” stutters my inner Norton, his eyes widening in incredulous disbelief, “If you discount the economic benefits of a degree, what are you left with? Three (or four, or five) years of lost earnings and opportunity for career progression. Why on Earth would anybody choose to do that?”

University education is a sensational opportunity if – and this is the critical caveat – if you want to learn and to invest of yourself (your time, your energy, your intellectual capital) in doing that. It’s an opportunity to interact with and benefit from the wisdom and experience of brilliant and creative people, a chance to get exposed to new and challenging ideas. A chance to think deeply about who you are, who you can be, and how our society operates – what our values are, and what they should be. Yes, I’m approaching this from a biased perspective in that I would happily admit to valuing philosophical novelty and intellectual discourse above a newer car and a designer watch. But as long as I’m open about that perspective – and don’t try to pretend my views are some kind of universal truth you’d be crazy not to appreciate – you can judge for yourself the validity and relevance of my comments.

When it comes down to it, how many graduates in my own field of geology does does society ‘need’? The current situation in Australia is somewhat anomalous – with a rampant resource sector almost desperate enough to hire anyone able to differentiate a rock from a hard place – but any reader with the barest grasp of history should appreciate that this white-hot demand is a temporary aberration. Here’s the thing though, I still think more people – as many as possible – should study geology. Fundamentally, I’m not training people to log drillcore, or even to design mineral exploration programmes – although my teaching will place you in an intellectual space where both of these things will be supported – I’m trying to engage people in understanding the processes that shape the Earth.

At the recent quadrennial International Geological Congress meeting in Brisbane, I attended a public forum in which mining and resource ministers from several countries – including our own – were addressing the future resource needs of a growing global population. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that decisions – important, far-reaching decisions – are being made by governments all around the world today about this sort of issue – how to balance economic and social needs against environmental quality, traditional land use, and other amenity values. These decisions will affect you, me, our kids – all of us – long into the future. Do you really want to base your views on these issues on what Alan Jones says? Or Tony Abbott? Or Bob Brown for that matter? Seriously, if you want to engage in these debates and hold the decision makers to account, understanding the function of Earth systems should concern you deeply. I want to see an educated population able to, in that finest of Australian political traditions, “keep the bastards honest”.

Therein lies the true benefit of University education to an open and democratic society – producing an intellectually engaged, thoughtful populace ready and able to debate values and issues of significance from myriad perspectives, and contribute the societal wisdom needed to steer our nation, and indeed our planet, through the challenges of the future.

More pennies for your thoughts? University fees and the Grattan report

“Graduates…have attractive jobs, above-average pay and status. They take interesting courses and enjoy student life. I think they are getting a bargain compared with their lifetime earnings potential.”

So says Andrew Norton, higher education programme director at the Grattan Institute, in his recent report ‘Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education’. Norton’s principle thesis is that graduates, rather than society as a whole, are the beneficiaries of higher education – and should therefore pay more, potentially much more, of the true costs involved in providing that education.

Discussion around the funding of higher education is important. Indeed, I would agree with Norton that a university education provides graduates (and even those students who do not graduate) with significant opportunities and benefits, so it is fair to question the degree to which an individual should contribute to the costs of that educational experience. But to follow the accounting approach laid out in the Grattan report is to cede an argument that should be philosophical and sociological to the realm of economics. It’s like the old logical fallacy “So have you stopped beating your wife yet?” By adopting the neat rhetorical device of comparative earnings, Norton and others like him are attempting to make the debate about quantifying the benefits graduates accrue, rather than what a University education is really for.

For all it’s careful analysis and sound-bite friendly calculations though (quotable statistics are a much easier sell than philosophical nuances, after all), when you look behind the numbers, Norton’s study is founded on what may be a less than secure foundation – the assumption that the higher lifetime earnings (and other benefits in relation to the general population) of graduates arise explicitly because of the degree they have obtained. But hang on a second, let’s unpack that assumption – because what Norton seems to be doing here is committing the schoolboy error of a equating correlation to causation.

How so? Well, are the higher earnings of graduates truly related to their University education, or are both simply related to another controlling variable? Since the 1950s, by way of analogy, both atmospheric CO2 and obesity levels in Australian society have increased sharply. To imply a causative relationship would be to suggest that in some way atmospheric CO2 causes obesity – as if we’re all just making our own carbohydrates directly through photosynthesis, perhaps – whereas in reality both are symptomatic of the common controlling variable of increased wealth.

In essence, the problem for Norton here – as he himself recognises in the inner workings of the report – is that the comparison between graduates and non-graduates is not unbiased. Yes, there are wonderful success stories of prodigiously driven, inspirational individuals who forgo the graduate path to achievement – stand up and take a bow Richard Branson and Steve Jobs – but in general, merit-based entry criteria mean that it is a brighter, more ambitious, and more self motivated cadre that undertake University education. If we also assume that career and business success correlates strongly to the same aspects of intelligence and drive, then it should not be a surprising observation that graduates are in the top bracket of career earners. How, then, do we calculate how much of the extra earning of graduates should be attributed to their University education, and how much to their innate ability?

Now here’s where I’m eternally grateful to Norton because, like a magician revealing how the illusion is performed, he tells us how it’s done. Admittedly in an appendix where an over-worked education reporter with a filing deadline to meet isn’t exactly likely to stumble across it. He assumes a number. Empirical basis? Scientific calculation? Theoretical underpinning? Nope. An arbitrary 10%. We’ll just assume University graduates enjoy a 10% earnings advantage due to their innate ability, and the rest of their career success is the result of their University experience.

Now, yes, this assumption is critical to make the calculations tractable so Norton can come up with his headline-grabbing $600,000 lifetime earnings differential…but the flip side is that the modeling is then simulating an artificial system rather than the behaviour it purports to capture. It’s like the old joke about a physicist charged with figuring out how to increase the milk production of a herd of cows, whose solution begins “First, assume a spherical cow…”

Norton does allow in the appendix for alternative calculations with an ability premium of up to 40%…but why stop there? Why not 50%? Or 100%? Or maybe they start with a premium of 150% but all that ‘student life’ they enjoy actually stunts their achievement. Okay I may be guilty of reductio ad absurdum here – but the point is that the ability premium has no innate basis – it exists only for that convenient mathematical purpose. There is no way we can resolve whether 10, or 20, or 200% is the appropriate figure to use. Like a Chinese high speed train project then – the Grattan analysis is built to look impressive and modern, but laid on potentially insecure foundations.

Why is that important? Surely the comprehensive modeling and calculations Norton undertakes are sufficiently robust that the conclusions of the report can’t be undermined by this one trivial simplification, can they? I’m not so confident on that score.

Let me illustrate by way of a detour through my own professional back yard. Physicist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) – a towering scientific intellect acknowledged as one of the greatest exponents of thermodynamics of the 19th Century – ‘proved’ in 1862 that the Earth was somewhere between 20 and 400 million years old. Earth scientists of the day thought that figure far too young to account for the global history evinced by the geological record, but none could fault his calculations. Indeed, Thomson’s calculations were accurate – brilliant even – and still stand as a valid construction. But they produce the wrong result. Out by a factor of at least 10, with the Earth’s actual age – should you be interested – now measured to around 4.54±0.05 billion years. How can this be? Because Thomson based his workings on the simplifying assumption that the Earth lacks an internal heat source, when in actuality radioactive decay has been continuously pumping out heat throughout geological history.

Although numbers may look good when quoted in a nice banner headline, any calculation, no matter how exquisitely conceived and accurately undertaken, is only useful if the underlying assumptions are true.

The relationship between higher education and society is a social compact that should be open for ongoing discussion, and as a part of that, we should be debating how Universities should be funded. In that context, the Grattan report should be seen as an important contribution, offering a coherent and well argued monetarist view of how the University system should operate. But it is nothing more than that. And if you think the economic modeling Norton presents should be privileged over other philosophical and sociological viewpoints in the discussion of the University system…I have a friend in Nigeria who would like to talk to you about a fortuitous windfall he’d like your help with.

Manage, Lest ye be Managed

When I first began in academic life as a lecturer in the UK, I was offered a piece of earnest advice by a more experienced colleague: “Geoff,” he said, “you seem a conscientious and well meaning chap…so let me warn you – they will ask you to start taking on administrative duties as part of your contribution to the department.” His grim demeanor as he said this made it clear that such an eventuality was the worst thing he could imagine. “Whatever they ask of you,” he continued, leaning in conspiratorially now “you must do it badly. Not just below-par, but really drop-the-ball-incompetent badly. It might make you look bad at first, but you’re young and will be forgiven – and they will never,” he grinned, a mischievous gleam coming into his eye “never ask you to do anything again.”

I looked on this sage advice as a friendly attempt at sardonic humor, and I have to say I never took it up, with any administrative mis-steps (and I’d like to think there weren’t too many) over the ensuing years I spent in the Higher Education sector neither more nor less than a reflection of my true competence in the area.

This idea though – management as anathema to academic life – seems to be echoed by Australian academic Richard Hil in his 2012 book ‘Whackademia’. Hil takes aim at what he sees as a degeneration of University academic life – particularly in Australia, but also in general, he argues, across the English speaking world. Chief among his complaints is the growth of managerial culture and accountability in University teaching, which he argues has curtailed the freedoms and creativity previously comprising the core of higher education.

While hankering after a lost golden age is hardly a unique call to arms, the theme that administration and management are somehow inimical to productive research and teaching does seem to be a common view among University academics.

Speaking to this perceived clash in his 1989 book ‘Wonderful Life’, for example, the late paleontologist and prolific essayist Steven Jay Gould, wrote:

“The earthly rewards of scholarship are higher offices that extinguish the possibility of future scholarship.”

Indeed, so commonly were such grumblings heard around faculty staffrooms during my own time in the Tertiary education sector that I can almost sense their primal origins in Theophrastus complaining to his fellow philosophers in ancient Athens that the Lyceum wasn’t the place of pure scholarship it had been in Aristotle’s day (and yes, any classics scholars out there who may be able to fill me in on this point, please feel free to drop a line).

But why this disrespect and mistrust? Are Gould and Hil (not to mention my imagined Theophrastus) right to stand atop the mount and sound a clarion call to defend the sanctity of the academic profession?

Management is a key aspect of elite achievement in any field. Given recent performances I admit the possibility that I may be wrong on this next point, but I doubt the manager of the Fremantle Dockers football team invests in assembling the best squad of players that he can and then just says “right guys, rock up at the stadium every Saturday for the season and let’s hope for the best.”

Good management is about enabling and supporting optimum performance from your team. The late Bart Cummings was credited with winning 12 Melbourne Cups in his superlative career as a horse trainer. Where Hil would have us sneer that it was champion thoroughbred Viewed who took out the 2008 cup in a photo finish and Cummings couldn’t have outrun the second-placed Bauer himself, the real point is that he had a gift for spotting and developing talent – identifying physiologically gifted equine specimens and honing them to racing perfection. Were I fortunate enough to have had an interest in his stable, I would have been grateful that it was Cummings who was in charge, rather than his horses – fine specimens though they may have been.

University academics are a specialized group – intelligent, curious, and devoted – often to the point of passion – to their chosen fields (trust me, this career isn’t generally pursued for its high rewards and job security). More than that though, success in the academic sector requires independence of thought, a splash of iconoclasm, and an ability – quite literally – to see problems from a different perspective to other people. Set these talents to work in a well-structured University environment and these are people who really can change the world. Much like Cummings’ thoroughbreds though, outside that specialized setting, such qualities may not always be a recipe for success. When it comes time to man the lifeboats after all, it’s one thing to be a champion rower ready to help pull the oars, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should be the one responsible for steering the boat. Awareness of your own strengths and limitations, together with a willingness to support those navigating the stormy seas, are critical to your ultimate success.

Hil’s thesis boils down to the idea that control of academic activity and direction in Universities have been usurped by undeserving functionaries and administrators. At the same time, however, he argues that those academics who move into administrative roles represent some sort of ‘class traitor’. Hil’s ‘have it both ways’ logic in this regard is simply indefensible – suggesting in effect that University academics should be exempt from managerial and administrative tasks, but that they should join him in complaining when others step in and take on those roles. I agree with Hil, up to a point, that those best placed to understand the needs and demands of the Higher Education sector are probably the academics themselves. We diverge, however, in the responses we would favour to deal with this situation. To me, management and administration of complex academic systems seem clearly necessary – not a necessary evil, as a charitable reading of Hil’s arguments might frame it, but a vital element of the successful function of the University system. In light of this, where the need arises to take charge of these procedures, I would rather it fell to those with an interest and talent in these areas – whatever their background.

I would be happy to admit that I too have seen plenty of examples of poor management and administration in University systems around the world. Where Hil would have us throw up our hands with a petulant ‘see, I told you so’, however, my belief is that the real solution lies in the participants contributing to make the system work better. Call it a philosophy of “manage, lest ye be managed”, perhaps. Make no mistake, undertaking such duties well requires the investment of time, intellect, and passion, and we should laud and respect those with the skills and desire to take them on with the care and energy they deserve.

In their essence, Hil’s complaints about the changed nature of the academic profession are like those of a military commander complaining that it’s been ages since they last got to lead a decent cavalry charge. The world changes, and for universities to remain a part of that world, they need to change and adapt alongside the society in which they exist

When it comes down to it, what academics – or anyone in a complex modern organization – should agitate against is not management in and of itself, but bad management.